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Are internships ‘worth it’? MU study suggests interns learn soft skills, clarify career paths



The next few weeks mark the start of internship season, a time when hundreds of thousands of students enter the professional workplace in a temporary, learning-centric capacity. An estimated 1.5 million internships are offered every year in the United States, roughly half of which are unpaid. This lack of compensation often sparks debate – are internships “worth it”?

A University of Missouri study found that, beyond compensation, interns gain increased levels of self-confidence, clarity on career choices and real-world experience. Essentially, these forays into employment pay off.

The study, conducted by Stephanie L. Moczygemba-Amaya, utilized interviews with students, parents and administrators to develop four themes: transformational learning, professional experiences, soft skills and post-secondary planning.

In transformational learning, students found that immersion into a professional setting brought them validation in their own skill sets and abilities. Students were more confident after participating in career exploration – they learned from mentors, explored passion projects and applied knowledge they had learned previously at school.

“Each professional experience served as a building block to validate or change the participants’ previous biases or perceptions,” the study said.

In the professional experiences and soft skills themes, students found that by moving outside the walls of the classroom, they learned how to conduct themselves professionally, how to communicate professionally and how to understand workplace social norms. They were better able to articulate their personal attributes and could identify what type of environment they would thrive in after completing internships. Students also noted the development of soft skills such as ability to collaborate, trustworthiness and dependability that they would not have been able to establish without working in the “real world.”

The hands-on experience of an internship also proved to be a guiding force in students’ lives. The post-secondary planning theme found in the study explored how students’ experiences either reinforced their career plan, refined the field they thought they wanted to work in or redirected their trajectory completely. In one instance, a student who thought she wanted to work in elementary education found that special education was incredibly rewarding for her, and she shifted her degree program as a result.

This research was in response to the rapid pace of change in the modern U.S. workforce. Career readiness has become increasingly urgent as more and more students pursue higher education.

Key takeaways
  • Professional internships bring students authentic experiences in a way that classroom activities cannot.
  • Internships allow students to explore career options before completing a degree they don’t fully understand and/or want.
  • The soft skills that internships teach implicitly are crucial to student success in post-education life.
  • Internships make the theoretical knowledge students learn in school practically applicable.

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